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For grassland and shrubland birds, such as sage grouse, grass height is important for the success of nests. However, the nature of the relationship has potentially been confounded in some of the most recent studies due to the timing of sampling, as revealed in a new study published by Daniel Gibson from the University of Nevada-Reno.

In this study, the authors assess how researchers have been studying the relationship between when grass height was measured relative to nest success. The authors concluded that, in a majority of studies, researchers measured vegetation at failed nests at the time of nest failure, usually early in the season, and then later measured vegetation for successful nests at some predicted hatch date.

The problem with this approach is that plant growth stage, otherwise known as “phenology” in the scientific world, is at an earlier phase when sampled for a nest that did not survive to the expected hatch date than it was if sampled later at the expected hatch date. By sampling failed and successful nests at different times, this sometimes leads to a grass height and nest success relationship that is “positively biased relative to true effects,” according to the researchers.

This problem can lead to a “bias sufficient to the change the overall direction of the effect, as well as its magnitude.”

To quote the authors, “The fate of successful nests occurs inherently later in the season. Therefore, vegetation biomass will increase prior to sampling for successful nests when compared with unsuccessful nests, which fail and are sampled earlier.”

When you read the paper, make sure to pay attention to Figure 3, which shows the difference in the relationship between sampling vegetation at the failure date versus sampling vegetation at the predicted hatch date for sage grouse in Nevada. You will note that the slope of the line and variability around the line is quite different for the two approaches. The authors conclude that, when this confounding effect is considered, the positive effect of grass height on sage grouse nest survival is a very weak effect.

I am not sure at this point how these findings will affect our current situation with sage grouse, grass height and grazing, but I know that this paper is very insightful with very strong implications for this major issue. I also suspect this is not the last we will hear on this issue.

Please contact me any time with thoughts or concerns at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Check out my blog “Rangelands4u” at wyoextension.org/rangelands4u.

 

During the 2017 General Session of the Wyoming Legislature, the body passed a bill to allow captive breeding of sage grouse.

Diemer True, owner of Diamond Land & Livestock and a recently appointed member of the Sage Grouse Implementation Team (SGIT), supported the bill through the process, explaining that he hopes it will be a positive effort for everyone involved.

“The listing of sage grouse as endangered would have such an enormous negative impact on the state’s economy,” True comments. “This bill and the ability to raise sage grouse in captivity provides another arrow in our quiver to protect against potential listing of the bird under the Endangered Species Act.”

Beginnings

The idea of raising sage grouse in captivity isn’t new. There have been efforts over the past several years to allow captive raising of sage grouse, but each year, those efforts have been thwarted in the Wyoming Legislature.

“There are three big differences between what passed this year and what has been proposed in the past,” True explains.

First, in the past, the ability to raise grouse has been attempted through footnotes in appropriations bills.

“Kit Jennings put a footnote in the appropriations bill several years ago mandating the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) to implement rules,” True says. “There was no deadline and no requirements. It wasn’t legislation, and it wasn’t fully debated.”

Secondly, True notes that the timing of this effort was more appropriate.

“In 2008, we were beginning to take a habitat approach to preserve the sage grouse,” he says. “If a pilot project worked to breed sage grouse, there was a concern that habitat efforts would be abandoned. The state of Wyoming and WGFD had an enormous commitment to habitat improvement, so the effort was delayed.”

Finally, the original efforts had an appropriation attached.

“There is no money attached to this effort,” True says.

He also notes that research is much more robust today, allowing increased potential for success.

This year

“Steve Harshman, who is speaker of the House, has a passion for the potential of captive raising of sage grouse,” True says. “He has tried to incentivize private outfits to raise sage grouse.”

He continues, “Steve and I have talked very casually at football games about raising sage grouse in captivity. When he was re-elected, I said, 'Let’s stop looking at an appropriation for raising sage grouse in captivity. Let’s look at using private enterprise.'”

The bill that passed during the session allows private game bird farms to raise sage grouse under strict stipulations.

“The bill expires on Jan. 20, 2022, so we only have a five-year window to raise sage grouse,” True explains. “There is no appropriation attached to the bill.”

The legislation allows qualifying bird farms to apply to WGFD to obtain a license under which up to 250 sage grouse eggs can be collected, incubated, hatched and raised.

True’s involvement

For True, his interest in sage grouse comes from his interest in game birds in general.

“I enjoy bird hunting, and I really enjoy training dogs,” he says. “I’ve been buying birds from a game bird farm in Powell. When that farm was going out of business, I bought it. The owner, Karl Bear, stayed on to managed the farm.”

Bear has seen success in raising a variety of game birds for many years, including pheasants, chukars and Hungarian partridges, and he believes that he will be able to successful raise sage grouse.

Raising sage grouse in captivity has been met with varying degrees of success. While the Calgary Zoo recently experienced defeat, Colorado State University’s Tony Apa and the University of Wyoming have successfully raised sage grouse in the past.

“Karl has been in contact with the Calgary Zoo, and he’ll be flying up to visit with them about the reasons why they failed,” True explains. “He’s also going to meet with a bird farm owner in Idaho named Dan Snyder. Dan has raised exotic-type grouse for many years.”

He emphasizes, “We’re focusing on collaboration and working together to successful raise grouse.”

Raising sage grouse

True notes it is uncertain whether or not they will apply for a license to raise sage grouse, and much more research needs to be conducted.

“Karl is quite certain that he can get the birds to seven weeks of age, but raising sage grouse beyond that point is likely to be more challenging,” True comments.

Raising 250 eggs isn’t a challenge, he continues, as the farm is accustoming to raising between 30,000 and 70,000 birds per year.

“Right now, we’re not sure how to feed sage grouse, but there’s a lot of literature about what they eat at different stages in their lives,” he says. “We’ll have a plan, though, if we decide to try raising sage grouse.”

At the same time, True emphasizes, “We’re going to be very, very aware of observing what works and what does not work in raising sage grouse. We want to do everything we can to be successful.”

“Our intention is to apply for a license,” True adds, “but if we find a fatal flaw in our analysis, we’re not going to go full steam ahead. We’re not going into this blindly.”

Purpose of grouse

If efforts to raise sage grouse in captivity are successful, True says, “This is not a silver bullet.”

He notes that there are many questions remain, including how many breeding pairs constitutes a viable population and more.

Birds raised in captivity may be utilized in many different ways.

“We could use these birds for research, moving out of the lab and into the field,” True says. “Applied research is so different than lab work.”

Secondly, the birds could be used to stock areas of critical habitat that currently do not have sage grouse population.

Birds could also be used for hunting, since sage grouse hunting seasons still exist in Wyoming.

“Birds could also be distributed into the wild as a mitigation factor for industrial development,” True adds.

Moving forward, rules are in development and will be out for public comment soon.

“We hope this is a net positive,” True says. “We want to create one more arrow in our quiver for sage grouse.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

During their Feb. 27 meeting, the Sage Grouse Implementation Team (SGIT) heard a number of updates, including a report from the SGIT Communications Team, who has been exploring new opportunities to re-brand the effort, and updates on the latest sage grouse numbers.

Marketing efforts

During the October 2016 meeting, a communications subgroup was established for SGIT.

“Since that time, we have had a lot of movement,” said Joy Bannon, of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation and chair of the subgroup. “We have 25 people who are part of that group.”

The committee has begun identifying different aspects of communication for each month of the year.

“For January, we decided because, there’s a new administration nationally, we would have a message that Wyoming’s SGIT and our conservation strategy will survive this administrative change,” she explained.

They reached out to reporters around the state and promoted SGIT and it’s 10-year existence. They also released an opinion editorial and distributed it to newspapers statewide.

“For February, we decided we will start developing an opinion editorial,” Bannon continues. “We decided that four leaders of the SGIT that have been around since its inception would be perfect as authors of the op-ed.”

The team hopes to discuss conservation efforts and promote the work of SGIT, as well.

“In subsequent months, we will have other opinion editorials,” she said. “It’s exciting.

In March and April, they will focus on social media posts to highlight sage grouse and the sagebrush ecosystem.

“We’re going to try to lead the way on communication,” Bannon emphasized.

Focus groups

With 25 team members, Bannon said they opted to split the subcommittee into various focus areas.

They formed a media protocols focus group to provide guidance for SGIT to interface with the media and a focus group to look at re-branding the SGIT, with the goal of improving the team’s ability to market their work to the general public.

“Our goal is to better communicate the SGIT purpose and image and to provide better internal guidance for all members,” said Nyssa Whitford, a member of the SGIT subcommittee. “We’ve collaborated to create a new mission, vision and logo.”

After 10 years since the implementation of SGIT, the committee noted that it was necessary to continue to communicate SGIT’s purpose clearly and succinctly, while also providing necessary information to parties interested in and curious about the work of the team.

“While we won’t debate the logo, mission or vision today, I think the subcommittee has captured a lot of the things we need to have in those elements,” SGIT Chairman Bob Budd said.

He emphasized that the two-pronged mission of SGIT, however, must be included, and the subcommittee would be making additional changes to the branding documents before they are used.

“We have a two-headed mission, and we need our mission statement to reflect that,” he commented. “It is equally important that we maintain economic opportunities at the same time we do conservation work.”

Over the next several weeks, SGIT team members will provide comments on the new branding materials, so they can be finalized and used in publications.

Grouse production

During the meeting, Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) also reported that 2016 was a very poor year for sage grouse chick production.

“We had very poor chick production as was evidenced by our wing counts,” said WGFD’s Tom Christensen. “We take hunter-harvested wings and the look at the ratio of chicks to hens.”

The data show 0.9 chicks per hen were produced this year.

Over the last 20 years, that number has ranged from 0.8 chicks per hen to 2.4.

“We can expect, based on two years of data and how numbers influence this year’s lek counts, that we’re likely looking at a noticeable decline in lek counts this spring,” he added. “That data is consistent with folks who were on the ground this spring.”

The low chick production is likely a result of a very cool, wet spring coupled with flooding in sage grouse areas and exposure of chicks to harsh weather.

“This happens, and we should expect lower lek counts this year,” he said.

Outside the state

In North Dakota, Christensen indicated that the state was down to 17 males on their leks in 2016, and they were looking for a source to for translocation for many years.

“After negotiations and support of innovative research, we took the proposal to the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, and they approved it last fall,” he continued. “They’ll be taking 30 to 40 hens for two years. Then, we’ll re-evaluate the program.”

Part of the translocation effort involves a study on the impacts to the population, including other techniques to settle the hens into their new locations.

As an example, Christensen referenced artificial insemination of hens.

“The idea is, if the hen is inseminated, she’ll settle down immediately, as opposed to not being bred, then leaving the suitable habitat and dying,” he said. “We’re going to work on a site north of Rawlins.”

Christensen added that they are currently looking for the right location to avoid influencing other sage grouse work.

Translocation efforts are scheduled to begin in early 2017.

“We’re working out the logistics right now,” he added. “These translocations will happen this year and next year.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

House Bill 271, Game bird farms – Greater sage grouse, passed during this session of the Wyoming Legislature. The bill would amend language in Wyoming Statutes to allow game bird farms to legally possess, propagate, breed, sell, raise and release Greater sage grouse.

Scott Smith, deputy director of external operations at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, noted that the bill was the biggest piece of legislation affecting sage grouse during the session.

“The legislation amends existing statutes on the books for game bird farming that specifically address raising sage grouse,” he said during the Feb. 27 meeting of the Sage Grouse Implementation Team (SGIT). “It also lays out that the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission (WGFC) must establish rules and regulations that game bird farms have to operate under to raise sage grouse.”

Moving through

  Smith noted, “The bill had several amendments that worked through the body, and this is what was settled on.”

Bob Budd, chair of SGIT and executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, said, “When the bill was in committee, we worked on a number of things.”

He continued, “We encouraged the committee to change a lot of ‘mays’ to ‘shalls.’ For example, the Commission shall determine where collections can occur and how many.”

With strict regulations in place, Budd noted that sage grouse rearing is unlikely to be overwhelmingly prevalent.

“I don’t think anyone anticipates that we’ll have hundreds of sage grouse farms in the state,” Budd said, “but there are potential upsides for people.”

Inside the bill

According to the Wyoming Legislative Service Office (LSO), the bill provides a process by which game bird farms can receive a certificate to raise Greater sage grouse and “specifies criteria which must be met to qualify for a certificate, including having successfully raised at least two other species of game birds from eggs or chicks and having an adequate enclosure and vegetation for sage grouse.”

Additionally, farms receiving certification must renew their licensure annually, after demonstrating that they meet the criteria.

“The bill authorizes gathering of sage grouse eggs under the supervision of a wildlife biologist and in coordination with WGFD,” LSO continues. “The bill provides limits on the number of eggs gathered, nesting sites disturbed and months in which eggs may be collected.”

Smith added, “The Legislature left quite a lot of discretion for the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission on sage grouse rearing. There are a lot of things the Commission will need to decide.”

Rules and regulations that govern the collection of sage grouse eggs and more are required to be established by Sept. 1, 2017.

“The rules that would be implemented under this endeavor would include rules on collecting sage grouse eggs in the wild, bringing them back into captivity and rearing them,” he described.

A look back

Over the last five years, a handful of proponents have advocated for the ability to raise sage grouse in captivity, with the goal of supplementing naturally occurring populations.

“I think this idea got legs when a game bird farm operator who has a fairly good success rate said he was interested in seeing if it could be done,” Budd explained. “There are numerous people who backed the idea.”

In the past, the idea has always come through the Wyoming Legislature as a footnote or amendment to the budget bill, where it did not succeed, but Budd added that with the decision of whether or not to list the sage grouse as a big question in the past, the measure never passed.

“The bird not being listed has changed this,” he said. “Now, that the sage grouse is  not listed as an endangered species, we’re willing to try to raise them in captivity.”

Other efforts to raise sage grouse in captivity have been undertaken at the Calgary Zoo, with various rates of success, but Budd commented, “Most of these efforts have been conducted by scientists and not game bird farmers. There’s a chance that farmers will do something different.”

Looking forward

While there are still a number of questions in place, such as how well the birds will survive after being reared in captivity and released, Budd commented that conversations will continue to take place.

“This will give us plenty to discuss moving forward,” he said.

Budd noted that the Commission will likely begin formulating rules at their next meeting, scheduled for March 23-24.

The bill was sponsored by Reps. Halverson, Eric Barlow, Landon Brown, Scott Clem, Roy Edwards, Lars Lone, Bunky Loucks, David Miller and Dan Zwonitzer,

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Casper – Natural resource experts and stakeholders from around the state gathered in Casper on Sept. 8-9 for research updates, panel discussions and other presentations on the current status of habitat restoration during the Wyoming Habitat Restoration Workshop.

The workshop was presented by the Wyoming Reclamation and Restoration Center and the University of Wyoming (UW) School of Energy Resources.

During the conference, UW PhD Candidate Kurt Smith presented his research comparing the current core area stipulations for Greater sage grouse to their use of winter habitat.

“We’re interested in evaluating how well the core area concept that was designed for breeding habitat does at protecting winter habitat for these birds,” said Smith.

Migratory

Greater sage grouse are defined as a landscape species, meaning that they migrate over a large range of habitat throughout the year.

“They exhibit long distance movements between seasonal habitats. Even within those seasonal habitats, they can have a lot of movement,” explained Smith.

Typically, birds will show a high fidelity to seasonal areas, returning to the same locations year-after-year.

Not all birds will move over large distances to access seasonal habitat, however.

“The species is a partial migrant, so some individuals within the same species will move to distinct seasonal ranges, whereas others will stay in a single location,” said Smith.

In Wyoming studies, it was found that birds will travel an average of 14.5 kilometers from their nest to winter range.

Current stipulations

Smith explained that the core areas were developed based on leks and buffers around the leks to protect breeding habitat.

“I would say it works pretty darn well in terms of how it was designed for breeding habitat,” said Smith.

There are winter use stipulations that are put into place through the Natural Resource Conservation Service, depending on location and the concentration of birds at the site. The stipulations are largely based on what is defined as a winter concentration area.

“Winter concentration areas are areas where a large concentration of core area birds – so birds that are breeding in core areas – congregate and occupy from Dec. 1 to March 14,” continued Smith.

The definition typically includes groups that are consistently 50 birds or greater.

If a non-core area is identified as a concentration area, a seasonal use restriction is put into place from Dec. 1 to March 14. Core areas identified as concentration areas receive the most protection.

“There’s the seasonal use restriction, but then there’s also the five percent disturbance cap,” said Smith.

Core versus non-core

As part of their study, Smith and his team gathered 44,000 tracked locations from 77 individual birds.

“In our Big Horn Basin site, we had about 56 percent of individuals nested in core. Of those, about 63 percent of their winter use was in core,” said Smith.

Alternatively, approximately 30 percent of use was outside of core areas.

“Nearly 18 percent wintered entirely outside of core, so there’s a pretty substantial amount of use that is outside of core areas,” he continued.

In that study area, birds moved an average of 8.5 kilometers to winter range. Their winter range movement was from Oct. 26 to March 21.

“As we can see, they’re moving earlier and staying a little bit later than current timing stipulations,” said Smith.

Less movement was found in the Jeffery City study area, but similar winter range movement times were found.

“Our current seasonal use stipulations of Dec. 1 to March 14 are not quite matching the time of use that we’re seeing at a fine scale,” he concluded.

Range overlap

“Basically, we assessed seasonal home ranges and looked at the overlap with ranges in relation to core areas,” explained Smith.

He noted that more overlap occurred in larger core areas, which could be seen in comparing two of the study areas used.

In the Greater South Pass site, “The ratio of summer to winter use was a little less than one. That’s indicating that summer use is pretty well related to winter use,” said Smith.

Alternatively, the much smaller Rawlins site had a ratio of proportional use of 0.44 in the summer and 0.12 in the winter.

“Individuals are using these core areas much more in the summer than in the winter,” he continued.

According to the study, Smith determined that core areas do not proportionally protect winter habitat as well as they protect breeding habitat.

“If populations are using core mostly during the summer, it does not necessarily mean that they’ll use the core during winter. It’s really a habitat specific context,” concluded Smith.

Emilee Gibb is editor of Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached an This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..